In 2010, Jennie McCormack found out she was pregnant. The man who got her pregnant had just been sent to jail, and the single, unemployed mother with three young children lived on the $250 she received in child support each month. The nearest clinic to McCormack’s home in southeastern Idaho was in Salt Lake City, a two-and-a-half hour trip that McCormack would have to make four times, because Utah has a waiting period for women seeking abortions. McCormack didn’t have a car, or anyone that could watch her children, to say nothing of the at least $500 needed for the procedure. So Jennie McCormack called her sister, who lived out of state, and asked her to buy RU-486 online and send it to her, for a cost of about $200.
Medical abortions are generally approved for use in up to the ninth week of pregnancy. McCormack thought that she was early enough to use the pills, but the fetus was larger than she expected – it’s possible that the pregnancy was as far as twenty weeks – and she got scared. McCormack called a friend, who called his sister, who called the police – and McCormack was arrested under a 1972 Idaho law that makes it a crime for women to induce their own abortions. The law, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison, has never been enforced.
Even before the advent of medical abortion, such a law seems unnecessary. Self-abortion is not something that a woman would do cavalierly, given that most methods available at the time the law was written were painful, dangerous, and hardly a woman’s first choice. If she was desperate enough to try one of those methods, it’s unlikely that the threat of arrest would serve as a real deterrent.
Medication abortion has eliminated a lot of the physical risks, and in fact the procedure has an excellent safety record. Many reproductive rights experts and physicians see the expanded use of medication abortion, particularly when used in concert with telemedicine, as a boon to women that live in rural areas and might not have reliable access to health clinics.
Granted, McCormack did not have a doctor’s prescription for the medication, nor had she received an exam that would have determined the gestational age of the fetus. She was very lucky that she suffered no complications from terminating at home with pills that were ordered online. Yet these basic facts only underline the desperate circumstances that she found herself in, and her solution is completely understandable. If she could not even afford the cost of terminating her pregnancy, it’s highly unlikely that adding another child to her family was in the best interests of either McCormack or the three children she was already supporting. Her struggles, and her decision, are familiar to hundreds of thousands of women, not to mention the health care providers and reproductive rights activists that are urgently engaged in the struggle to ensure that women can receive safe health care regardless of where they live.
Yet a lot of the more prominent mainstream pro-choice organizations have been remarkably silent when it comes to McCormack. None of them have so much as released a statement on her behalf, even though McCormack’s case gets right to the heart of what so many of these organizations proclaim to be working for: the right of women to make their own reproductive health decisions. Slate’s William Saletan bluntly proposed one potential explanation for the silence: “This is not the plaintiff you want. Someone who procured her own abortion, fairly late in pregnancy. You want to choose your plaintiff very carefully.”
That is not to say that McCormack is without national allies. Three groups have filed a legal brief on her behalf; one of those organizations is the National Advocates for Pregnant Women. Their president, Lynn Paltrow, puts the potential repercussions of the McCormack case in a larger framework: “You pass laws first that say only physicians can perform abortions. Then you pass laws that make it impossible for those physicians to provide abortions. And then women take the steps they need to take as they do all around the world, as they did before Roe … And you create a perfect setup for making literally millions of women subject to arrest for having illegal self abortions.”
It is this setup that has kept anti-choice groups quiet on the case, as well. Because the reality of the McCormack case is that there is no provider to demonize, no familiar narrative of a helpless woman preyed on by a system that the anti-choice movement persists as seeing dangerous and manipulative. Even the head of one high-profile anti-choice group admits, “We do not think women should be criminalized. Criminal sanctions or any kind of sanctions are appropriate for abortionists, and not for women.”
For now, the state of Idaho has a different opinion. Though her case was initially dropped due to a lack of evidence, prosecutors retained the right to re-file charges. So McCormack’s attorney, Richard Hearn, filed an injunction to prevent any woman from being prosecuted under the anti-choice statue. Hearn also filed a class-action suit, claiming that the law is unconstitutional; that case will be heard in federal court on July 9. Despite the lack of support from the pro-choice movement, Hearn, who is also a physician, seems willing to take this fight as far as he needs to: “I say no case is perfect, and if not now, when?”
In the meantime, Jennie McCormack is dealing with more tangible and personal challenges at home in Idaho. Following her arrest – which was very public news in her town – McCormack used a different name to get part-time work at a dry cleaner. Customers realized who she was, however, and refused to let her handle their clothes, so McCormack had to leave that job. The temporary solace that she found in church was shattered after an anti-abortion sermon that seemed aimed at her. Unfortunately, it appears that whatever the legal outcome is of her case, the social and personal repercussions might be even more judgmental and unforgiving.
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.